Ever since the Edward Snowden story about the NSA spying program erupted, there has been a disturbingly eerie silence from progressives. Yes, perfunctory articles have been written, the usual pundits have spoken, and the ACLU has filed a much needed lawsuit, but progressive action groups have scarcely eked out a handful of petitions. As we are facing what is arguably one of the greatest historic struggles of our time, there is barely a ripple in the progressive universe.
Many progressives believe they do not have much to worry about because they ‘haven’t done anything wrong,’ and ‘have nothing to hide.’ However, knowledge of the vast surveillance program should raise critical questions about what is actually being done with this information. Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyer’s Guild, explains that one of the first things the government does is target the individuals who are challenging either its policies or the corporate power structure. Evidence of such targets is mounting. Environmental activists and animal rights activists were labeled the top domestic terrorism threat in 2005. The brutal tactics used to suppress the Occupy movement should have given serious pause to activists on all fronts.
Boghosian points out that the spying program also has serious implications for client/attorney communications. When people know that their conversations are being listened in on, it inevitably alters the way they communicate with their attorney, just as it can stifle what a source reveals to a journalist.
This affront to our right to privacy goes to the heart of what it means to have a democracy. With so much at stake, who among progressive groups is taking action to protect our civil liberties?
During a recent interview on KPFA, Norman Solomon, former congressional candidate and co-founder of RootsAction, questioned why MoveOn, the largest online progressive group, has not taken action asking, “Where are their clarion calls to defend and support Edward Snowden? Or for that matter Bradley Manning? They’re not happening….Can you imagine if these revelations had come out under Bush? What would the MoveOn national blasts have been like then?”
Some of this inaction is undoubtedly because we have a Democratic administration. With Obama in the White House, it is easier for progressives to ignore overreaches of power, including the fact that the current administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than have all other administrations combined. Is the relative apathy we are witnessing an all-too-common deference to the existing power structure?
During the Bush administration, a Pew Research Center poll of public attitudes towards the warrantless-wiretap program found that about twice as many Republicans as Democrats supported the program. Now those numbers have largely reversed. It appears that while Democrats did not support an NSA spying program under a Republican administration, it is acceptable under Democratic leadership.
Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, who broke the NSA story, observes, “I can tell you that by far the most vehement and vicious attacks on our reporting…come not from Republicans but from Democratic partisans both in politics and in the media.”
One impassioned MoveOn member, Mitchell Simpson, echoed these sentiments in a comment section on the Moveon site, ”Why doesn’t MOVE ON get some guts and start addressing the soft tyranny that is growing into something harder in Washington, D.C., under Obama? Enough of the cheerleading, start doing something…. If it was Bush in office now, you’d be calling for impeachment. Shape up MOVE ON!”.
According to MoveOn communications director Nick Berning, the reason the organization’s leaders have not launched a national blast about the NSA program is because they have replaced their top-down decision-making process with a member-based decision-making model. The new system asks members to start their own campaigns by creating a petition on the MoveOn site. Only if the signatures continue to grow will MoveOn leaders eventually join in on the campaign.
So for those wondering why they have not received an email from MoveOn founders Wes Boyd and Joan Blades urging members to take action against the NSA program, it is because none the member-based petitions have gained enough signatures to prompt leaders to launch a national campaign. Berning notes that, while many petitions have caused leaders to support a campaign, few have been successful enough to warrant a national blast to the full 8-9 million membership.
This new system raises a question: while this “bottom-up” approach seemingly puts the power to act in the hands of the members, does it not also provide a way for MoveOn leaders to avoid addressing controversial issues that would be at odds with the current administration?
Solomon points out that when MoveOn began 15 years ago, it was largely around an anti-war platform, but if one were to look at what has happened on a policy level since, there has been a tremendous avoidance of not only anti-war efforts but almost any issue that does not function in tandem with the agendas of the Democratic National Committee. For example, MoveOn’s most recent successful campaigns centered around an 11 year old who went up against an anti-gay state legislator and on a revision to an English-only language policy at Whole Foods.
While MoveOn has not launched a national campaign of their own around the NSA program, they have joined a large umbrella coalition, Stop Watching Us, that was formed to take action against the vast expansion of the NSA’s surveillance program. This coalition is sponsored by over 100 groups and internet companies such as Mozilla, Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), and ColorOfChange. Although MoveOn has added their name to the coalition, they have not sent out a national blast informing members about it. So while joining the coalition isn’t overtly ignoring the issue, they’re not really doing much to address it either.
Despite MoveOn’s lack of action, many of the other groups within the coalition are moving quickly to spearhead a national campaign around this issue. Stop Watching Us has started a petition that currently has over 550,000 signatures demanding that Congress take action. They also helped promote a “Restore the Fourth” rally that took place on the 4th of July in more than 90 cities around the country.
The coalition is quite unique because it is the first time that this many groups have come together to fight for a progressive cause, creating an unusually powerful advocacy force. Some of the groups under the coalition’s umbrella had previously banded together for other causes over the past 4-5 years so it is not only building on past efforts but has also grown considerably larger and become better organized. With such a broad range of groups, there are many different skills to draw upon, ranging from journalists, to environmentalists, to Tea Party members, to organizers from Occupy Wall Street.
While the collective actions of these groups is encouraging, one must wonder whether progressives as a whole are willing to mobilize and push a civil liberties issue that could damage the credibility of “their guy.” Although concerns about hurting their sitting president are understandable, progressives need to do some real soul searching and ask themselves what kind of legacy they want to leave at the end of Obama’s term. For if we want a truly democratic government of the people, by the people, and for the people, we need to ensure that there is real oversight of those in power who are supposed to be representing and protecting us.
We, as progressives, need to work—both together and with those across the aisle who share our concerns—to bring scrutiny to the invisible surveillance program that so thoroughly scrutinizes us – at our own expense and to unknown ends. It is time for progressives to step up and support actions aimed at restoring civil liberties and the right to privacy for all Americans.